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Conor McGregor's 'movement' training is just another part of the circus

The fighter’s bizarre training might not be a joke — but it won't matter

Every Rocky has his side of beef. Athletes always let you know they train, and sometimes that they do things that are not just hard, but a different kind of hard, a kind of hard that makes them different not just in the ring, but globally different. Training for the relentlessly competitive athlete can’t just be intense—it has to have, in the end, something exotic, something no one else has, some rare sorcery that differentiates them from the rest of their competition.

For instance, Novak Djokovic would happily remind the public of his commitment to a gluten-free diet, and how climbing into pressure chambers increased his aerobic capacity, and how an intense stretching and recovery regimen turned him into a tennis cyborg incapable of human error. Walter Payton discarded conventional wisdom and refused to run anything farther than 50 or 100 yards because “that’s as far as I’m ever gonna need to run.” Tom Brady’s entire bizarre/novel/possibly quack routine, right down to the infrared pajamas and endless avocados, has become its own “Goop for Bros” lifestyle brand.

James Harrison. That’s the whole routine, just: “James Harrison.”

This might go double for combat athletes. Part of that is a matter of scarcity: The amount of time an MMA fighter or boxer actually works in the public ring is a tiny sliver of time relative to the rest of their schedule. Training, by necessity, becomes a part of the story, whether it’s by opening workouts to the press or doing exclusive features on how they prepare for fights. Sometimes those get turned into Men’s Fitness articles, and that explains why that guy at the gym once sparred alone in the corner for two weeks wearing a full sweatsuit in August before he gave up and just went back to what everyone else is doing.

A fighter’s training has its own value from a news perspective; a fighter’s ability to make news will increase their visibility; a fighter’s visibility translates directly into PPV money, endorsements, and future earnings. Being good in the ring is one thing; being good and different is another, more profitable thing altogether.

Related: Here’s Conor McGregor, who will step into a ring with the best professional boxer of his generation on Aug. 26, punching cards out of the air.

It might have been five or six years ago when the word “movement” started creeping into everyone’s vocabulary as a capital-T Thing. Part of that comes from the work of Erwan Le Corre, a French parkourist and founder of MovNat, a fitness program focusing on natural movement featured in books like Natural Born Heroes and in videos of Le Corre himself—long haired, shirtless, and running barefoot through the wilderness like some ripped version of Adam—on MovNat’s Youtube channel. (Yes: There’s voiceovers and a tribal drum soundtrack involved.) Le Corre advertises MovNat as “the workout that time forgot”, and based on his Twitter feed also has some very, very strong opinions about socialism.

The other figure behind the creep of “movement” into the fitness vernacular is Ido Portal. He is the man throwing cards at Conor McGregor in that video. He is also the man slowly swinging at McGregor with a stick, or kicking over a ducking McGregor, or pulling capoeira flips while McGregor and a sparring partner tap hands and feet in something between light-sparring and pattycake in a public park.

Like all movement coaches seem to do, Portal wears a ponytail and hates shirts and says things in a provocative, visionary way, like he’s speaking in Papyrus font. Samples include:

  • “People are not made of sugar. Also, one does not scare a hooker with a cock”
  • “One should meditate on one’s death daily”
  • “Space and time. That's the name of any game you will ever play.”
  • “I have a carb up meal once/twice a week based on tubers and rice. I will have some dark 85% chocolate and will avoid dairy and gluten fully. The next day I wake up even more ripped.”*

*I just included that last one because I like grown men on the internet arguing about how they wake up even more ripped than they previously were the night before, but I LOVE a personal fitness guru doing it to complete strangers even more .

Ido Portal and Erwan Le Corre and other proponents of Movement argue a lot of similar things. In Le Corre’s case, he refers to current, modern-living people as “zoo humans” who have forgotten the “natural” way to move through their environment. Portal echoes a lot of that, bemoaning specialization in fitness and the abandonment of the environment humans evolved to work in and move through.

“We never touch the floor” is a Portal saying that fits here, both because it a) represents the kind of assumption of a natural state of being at the heart of the movement-movement and b.) because it’s the kind of visionary, sweeping thing Portal, as a longhaired, capoeira-kicking visionary fitness guru, is supposed to say.

It’s an approach that assumes there is a natural way for the body to function in space, and that humanity has long abandoned that ancient wisdom for machines, treadmills, and hours and hours of sedentary living.

Here’s Conor McGregor getting hit with some kind of foam baton by Portal in his training for his upcoming boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, Jr.

It all looks weird, and barely connected to the central thing McGregor will have to do in less than two weeks, i.e. walk into a ring with Floyd Mayweather Jr., professional boxer and generational talent, and not get knocked out or seriously injured.

That is not an exaggeration. Conor McGregor, a gifted athlete and MMA champion, has to face Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a boxing match. Mayweather was born into a family of boxers, his father and his uncles were boxers, and he has been boxing since he was a child. Mayweather is widely regarded as the best fighter of his generation. He has a 49-0 record as a professional fighter, is nearly impossible for skilled boxers to hit flush with any punch, and even at 40 is in superb shape with a boxing IQ unequaled in depth or in pedigree. Mayweather is not just good—he is circumstantially as good as a boxer could be by design.

It’s best to not even think of this as a fight. That leaves only one conclusion, and that would be that the entire thing is a fraud — one built on the idea that anyone might watch a fight — but everyone on the planet will turn out to watch a guaranteed train crash.

That’s probably also the case here for Mayweather. Everyone I spoke with — trainers, reporters, coaches from MMA and boxing — everyone agrees that Mayweather could walk into the ring and pretty much do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Most think Mayweather will tire McGregor out for show, then finish him off sometime after the sixth or eighth round — around the time when an MMA fighter’s established conditioning for an MMA-length fight would wear off and start failing.

That’s the expected outcome by any sane, even charitable observer here: a respectable showing for McGregor, and a display of breezy supremacy by Mayweather, a fighter so comfortable in the ring he likely will spend a round or two simply observing McGregor without much attempt to attack him. (Which is insane, unless you’ve seen Mayweather do it, repeatedly, with different fighters.)

That’s what should happen, because this is a spectacle, not a fight, with an MMA savant entering the ring with a master-level boxing talent in a mismatch of training, expertise, experience, and sport-specific talent.

Here is Conor McGregor batting at tennis balls thrown by Ido Portal.

It would also be advisable to be just the right amount of skeptical about Movement training. Nate Diaz was. Before his fight with Conor McGregor in March of 2016, Diaz called movement training “playing touchbutt with that dork in the park”, referring to Portal, whom he called “the guy with the ponytail.” Diaz—covered in his own blood and waving McGregor forward after getting punched— then submitted McGregor by rear naked choke in the second round.

There are also reasons not to be skeptical. Most of the people I talked to about McGregor’s “touchbutt” work with Ido Portal were...positive? They were shockingly positive about it, and for a lot of reasons. McGregor — an unconventional fighter in a lot of ways in the MMA sphere — really does seem to benefit from whatever he was doing with Portal. The most striking thing about McGregor in the ring is his way of moving, his flexibility, his tendency to shift and flow to find angles other fighters can’t match or see coming.

Movement training, as silly as it looks, undeniably helps McGregor hone that snaky, flexible, and in Portal’s words, “chaotic” flow. But mystical Aztec warrior flowing motion myths aside, there is also another very practical reason for McGregor to work in movement training: It tapers down the stress and strain of training as McGregor gets closer to the fight.

"It probably helped Conor most when he was fighting at 145 and needed to make weight. He could train without putting a lot of stress on his body — especially toward the end of his camp."

That’s MMA Fighting’s Luke Thomas when I asked him exactly how all that noodling, jumping, crawling, and extremely meme-able movement training worked for McGregor. The timing works. In training camp, Portal comes in later for his work, not at the start. In the postfight press conference after his lighting knockout of Jose Aldo, McGregor described movement training as what he did immediately before the fight to stay loose, tuned into his body, and injury-free.

Maybe most importantly, the advantage McGregor has in using movement training in MMA fights is a psychological one — both for his own psyche and to use against his opponent. Fighters all train, but not all of them have a good handle on tuning their psychological wiring to the exact right frequency before a fight. Some rely on superstition, some rely on habit and routine, but all of them — at least those who aren’t complete head cases in the ring — have something they lean on to tolerate the absurd pressure of what is an inherently absurd situation.

And that, more than anything, is what trainers seem to think the value of movement training is for McGregor. Phil Daru, strength coach for American Top Team and a former MMA fighter himself, thinks as much.

“Definitely, I think it helps. So much of what a fighter does is mental. What he does with Ido, that might help him stay fresh before a fight, sure, but the real advantage would be psychological. If that works for a fighter, then he’s got to take that edge.”

Tony Ricci, strength and conditioning coach for MMA fighters like Chris Weidman and boxers like Chris Algieri, agreed when I asked him if movement training’s effect on McGregor was real or imagined.

“I think it’s both. The old saying is: the placebo effect is an effect. If Conor believes there’s a positive element to it, then there is.”

None of this is new, mind you. The concepts of movement training are embedded in a lot of what fighters from many disciplines have worked into their training for centuries. They’re not even particularly new to MMA. Georges St. Pierre went at least halfway down this road when he changed his non-sparring training to a regimen of gymnastic work and Olympic lifting; Alvaro Romano’s “ginastica natural” routines, espoused by MMA royalty like Rickson Gracie, predates movement theory by three decades. The packaging may be new, but the contents are old, reliable, and pop up again and again.

They’re about to walk into a brightly lit space in their underwear to try and beat the hell out of another person in front of a crowd. If it doesn’t hurt them, they can take whatever they need — especially if that fighter is Conor McGregor, walking into a matchup so theoretically lopsided it transcends even the normal levels of boxing absurdity.

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